FORT MYERS, Fla. – Hollywood script writers could be paying close attention to Minnesota Twins first baseman Chris Colabello.
As the World Baseball Classic gets under way, Colabello and Twins teammate Drew Butera will be playing for Team Italy. Colabello has come quite a long way since 2006, the last time he played in a big-league spring training camp before being cut by the Detroit Tigers.
Until playing last season for Double-A New Britain in the minor leagues, the 29-year-old first baseman had toiled for seven years in something called the Canadian-American Association. Colabello certainly didn’t expect to have a clubhouse locker next to four-time All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau, the native Canadian who like Colabello has departed camp for the WBC.
“I thought the first day there was a mistake,” Colabello said. “But everybody in that clubhouse is awesome. You can’t help but smile every day when you walk in and you’re in that position.”
Playing independent league baseball after graduating from Milford (Mass.) High and Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Colabello kept putting up numbers, season after season, with little to no interest from major league organizations.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Colabello has a career .317 average with 86 home runs playing seven seasons for Worcester of the Can-Am League.
That’s a few more seasons than Boston Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava could have waited.
“I have a lot of respect for someone who has played independent ball and gets a chance to come back and play in the big leagues, especially after seven years,” said Nava, who played one season in 2007 for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League before being discovered by the Red Sox. “That says a lot about him.
“I don’t know how he did it. Seven years, that’s a long time. I don’t think I could have done it for that long. It’s a grind, playing independent ball. There’s less money. The travel is pretty bad. The food is pretty bad. There are a lot of things that aren’t good. But the one thing you do get out of it is you have fun. You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to be there.”
Rich Gedman, now the hitting coach for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs with the Boston Red Sox, managed Colabello for six years.
“We needed a first baseman,” Gedman said of the 2005 season. “He came in after the first six or seven games of the year. Then we made a change. He was learning how to be a pro. He worked hard. He hit .300 every year. Perseverance is really what it’s all about. Wanting to get better. Learning how to get better. Not being bitter about not getting a chance. It’s a great story. It really is a great story. And for as good a baseball player as he is, he’s just a great kid. That’s what makes it an even better story.”
All four of Colabello’s grandparents and his mother were born in Italy, and his father Lou Colabello played for Italy in the 1984 Olympics. So Colabello considered playing for Team Italy an added thrill. When he returns to the Twins after the WBC, he will continue focusing on his goal of playing in the majors.
“Obviously, my ideal goal is to get to the big leagues and spend some time there,” Colabello said. ” I don’t think they would have me here if they didn’t see some potential in me. I’m just thrilled to be here, and I’m going to keep having fun with it.”
Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan said Colabello has impressed him. Colabello hit .284 with 19 home runs and 98 RBI in 134 games last season for Class Double-A New Britain.
“He can hit,” Ryan said. “He can hit the ball over the fence. He’s a solid first baseman. He’s a good teammate. He’s a tremendous influence on our New Britain players. Beyond that, he’s extremely appreciative of the opportunity he has.
“Guys fall through the cracks all the time. He’s got a chance, and he has stuck with it.”
Colabello said he wasn’t sure why scouts almost entirely ignored him.
“The biggest thing is, I don’t think I have one big glaring tool,” Colabello said. “If you watch me take BP on a normal day, there’s probably going to be guys who hit it further. If you watch me run a sprint down the line, there’s probably going to be guys who run faster. If you watch me field ground balls, there’s probably going to be guys who look a little bit better.
“But as far as how I feel about myself, I feel I’m a guy who you have to watch a lot to understand what I’m all about. I consider myself a baseball player at heart. I study the game. I learn the game. I try to see the game the best I can.”
Colabello said three things kept him from quitting a league that paid $700 to $3,000 a month.
“No. 1, is that I’m having fun every day,” Colabello said. “No. 2, it was financially feasible for myself and my family. No. 3, I wanted to get better every day, every week and every year. At the end of the day, I get to play baseball. That’s what it was all about for me. The game was always such a huge part of my life growing up. I always had the hopes that something would happen.
“As the years went on, a little bit, you start to have little shadows of doubt, especially when you start to get 26, 27, 28. In the minor leagues at that point, you’re considered old. I know in the big leagues, guys are hitting their primes at 28, 29, 30. If you’re still in the minor leagues at that point, there’s probably a reason for that.
“Like I said, I just wanted to get better. And I got to play. It’s the game I loved my whole life.”